Convincing Failure

A team faces a decision. They have a goal in mind but there are two approaches and no easy way to determine which is best. They pick a path and start building. In the end, the approach they took doesn’t work. They have not met their goal and wasted a bunch of time and resources in the process. The team has failed. Or have they?

There are two ways to fail and the consequences are orders of magnitude apart.

If you fail because you built something poorly, then yours is an abject failure. The only thing to learn from such a failure is that the team in question was ineffective. This is operationally valuable but not strategic. If the goal is still important a new team will have to start from step one. They will face the same decision as the previous team and have no better ability to choose a path.

But if you execute to a level of quality that makes it unlikely that another team, even with more time and effort, could succeed, then yours is a convincing failure. This kind of failure is strategically valuable because we can now eliminate an entire development path from consideration. That means subsequent work is dramatically more likely to succeed. A convincing success is unquestionably the goal of every effort, but a convincing failure should be a close second.

If you punish all failure then who will take any risks? But if you reward failure then what is the point of succeeding at all? The key to this conundrum is to focus on the magnitude of failure as much as we focus on the magnitude of success. We tend to agonize over the risk of executing something poorly but the much bigger risk is building the wrong thing to begin with. In that light it is easy to see that a convincing failure is actually a great success.